Nerve’s Modern Soul Revivalists Scorecard

Because charting soulfulness is a highly scientific process.

by Alex Heigl

Seal recently released a new album of classic soul covers, cleverly titled Soul II. While his choice of material is solid, he’s not exactly the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of soul music. But it got us to thinking: with all this “modern soul” floating around, how do you quantify soulfulness? Obviously, the way you quantify anything so as to arrive at an inarguable, objective result: hard science and corn liquor.

We're looking at the three Most Important Factors in any artists soulfulness: their tragic, against-the-odds upbringing, the degree of yearning and existential angst conveyed by their vocals, and their overall projected level of street-level realness, or "grit." Those scores are then combined into the Total Soulfulness score, which is measured from one to ten scale: one being Rick Astley, the absolute least soulful you can be while still releasing a song called “Never Gonna Give You Up;” and ten being Aretha Franklin — any more soul would cause you to explode and possibly rend the universe asunder. 

1. Seal

Though somewhat more successful in Britain than the U.S., Seal is still mostly known as the “Kiss From a Rose” guy Stateside, and his two albums of soul covers haven’t done much to dispel that notion. It’s not that he can’t sing well, or that the albums constitute “bad music,” but he’s acting more as a vessel than an interpreter — aside from adding some modern production touches, Soul and Soul II do very little to update or innovate on the songs that he’s chosen. 

Hardscrabble Background: 6
Ache in Vocals: 4
Perceived Grit: 5
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 5

Listen: “Lean on Me”


2. John Legend

John Legend has long been a go-to guy behind the scenes: he played piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” and popped up as the golden voice on a number of other people’s singles, including Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, and Kanye. His own music, though superficially soulful, is awfully refined and poppy, and his dancier side (unveiled with “Green Light”) is about as far from Muscle Shoals as Tokyo. However, Wake Up!, a collection of classic soul covers performed with The Roots, was widely hailed as a triumph, even if it's difficult to believe that baby face has ever seen any really "hard times."

Hardscrabble Background: 4
Ache in Vocals: 6
Perceived Grit: 4
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 4

Listen: “Hard Times”


3. Adele

Look, I love Adele. Everyone loves Adele. 21 is the masterpiece that everyone said it was, but is it soulful? Yes and no. Adele’s voice is clearly indebted to classic soul singers like Aretha, but her music owes more to singer-songwriters, projecting more Joni Mitchell vulnerability than Etta James brassiness. Even her more barnstorming tracks like “Set Fire to the Rain” and “Rolling in the Deep” aren’t particularly gritty — they’re a little too cleanly produced and rely heavily on synths and syrupy string arrangements.

Hardscrabble Background: 5
Ache in Vocals: 6
Perceived Grit: 4
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 5

Listen: “Set Fire to the Rain”


4. Robin Thicke

He’s got a good enough voice and he sure is cute and all that, but listen to a song like “Love After War” and try not to imagine an elevator. With his curious affinity for ‘60s bossa-nova-style cheese (“Love After War”) and Tom Jones-style braggadocio like “I’m An Animal,” Robin goes for broke — an admirably soulful quality in any artist — but his music consistently fails to evoke anything grittier than a dentist's office.

Hardscrabble Background: 2
Ache in Vocals: 3
Perceived Grit: 1 
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 2

Listen:  “Lost Without U”


5. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Members of the Dap-Kings played on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and they’ve swapped members with another NYC-based collective, funky instrumentalists the Budos Band. Additionally, erstwhile Nerve editor Jack Murnighan was present at Jones’ first New York show, and was pulled up onstage for what he calls “full-on impregnation-through-the-pants-style grinding.” All that, coupled with the fact that Jones worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo prior to “making it” should tell you all you need to know about the authenticity of Jones and Co.

Hardscrabble Background: 8
Ache in Vocals: 9
Perceived Grit: 9
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 9

Listen:  “Longer and Stronger”


Commentarium (22 Comments)

Feb 03 12 - 4:16am

I get that Seal grew up in poverty, but he married Heidi F'in Klum for godsakes. You should not get 5 "Grit" points if you have ever been married to a Victoria's Secret model.

Feb 03 12 - 6:23am

!Micheal Kiwanuka!

I'll just leave that here

Feb 03 12 - 9:07am

Stuff White People Like: Authenticity. Nothing says I'm A Real Black Person like growing up in an environment white people can feel sad about while reading said black person's Wikipedia bio.

Feb 03 12 - 4:19pm
greeopl find

I think this article's pretty firmly tongue-in-cheek. Also, while I understand how absurd the notion of "authenticity" is, there are plenty of black artists that grew up relatively comfortably that now have plenty of white fans. Kanye, for example.

Feb 03 12 - 5:38pm

The only thing worse than a black artist emerging out of poverty only to be patronizingly enjoyed by well-off white people is a well-off black artist like Kanye that many well-off white people consider to be the pinnacle of black art.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to be deliberately cantankerous here, and white people are certainly allowed to enjoy soul. It's just annoying that certain white people (not necessarily the author of this article, but a lot of them) can only justify liking black art if it's either A) born from circumstances white people fetishistically imagine all black people face or B) somehow "above" or "separate from" "the usual black experience" (e.g. Kanye). Maybe just listen to it because it's, um, good?

Feb 03 12 - 6:05pm
interest invingor

That's a great point, and rationally expressed. But I'd argue that we're hung up on notions of authenticity from art in general, not just black music. Look at what Bob Dylan faced when everyone found out he was just Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing. Or look at Lana Del Rey, who was fucking savaged by the internet despite having a first single that everybody in the world seemed to like. The weird outlier is someone like Tom Waits, who admittedly just lies his ass off in every interview and populates his songs with fake people and places he's never been to, without ever seeming to suffer from it. It's a weird line to walk.

Feb 05 12 - 5:23pm

If you put the points at which Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Lana Del Rey got famous on a timeline it will make sense to you. (Hint: No one cared about authenticity between 1977 and 1989.) I would argue that it's not a big deal now, either, except that Lana Del Rey Inc. tried really hard to present her as being somehow different from Adele Inc. while still shooting for the same demographic of "34-year-old-women who still buy music."

Feb 03 12 - 9:15am

What about Charles Bradley. He is about as real deal as they come, and has the chops to go along.

Feb 03 12 - 11:15am

Wait, yes! I agree! NO CHARLES BRADLEY? They made a whole movie about that;

Scores a 10 across the board.

Feb 03 12 - 12:53pm

what about alice russell?

Feb 03 12 - 1:41pm

Bosley is Baltimore's best neo soul revue! Video is unecessarily violent..

Feb 03 12 - 1:59pm

Love this. Wish you had included Mavis Staples and so glad you have the Alabama Shakes some love.

Feb 03 12 - 4:16pm
Alex Heigl

I don't think you can consider Mavis a revivalist, given she's been trucking along since the '60s.

Feb 03 12 - 2:38pm
only pop artists?

what about Warren Haynes new album. Soulful as shit

Feb 03 12 - 4:58pm

No Jamie Liddell? No Frank Ocean? Hmm.

Feb 03 12 - 6:58pm

You really need to check out Lee Fields and The Expressions. He's definitely up there on the soul-o-meter.

Feb 04 12 - 7:36am

Also Aloe Blacc is another really good modern soul singer.

Feb 04 12 - 11:59am

I guess I'll out myself as the only person on earth who was underwhelmed by Adele's 21. It should have been 12 songs like "Rolling in the Deep" (which is still basically "I Will Survive" with Moby Dick imagery) and maybe one "Set Fire to the Rain". I liked her first album more.
I have to say I do like some of the work by all these artists, but none of them can touch Tina Turner or Betty Wright. Maybe Sharon Jones can. Okay, probably Sharon Jones. I find a lot of Eryah Badu's music to be tiresome, but props to her for experimenting.

Feb 05 12 - 5:51pm

What, no Fitz & the Tantrums? "Money Grabber," y'know?

Feb 06 12 - 5:41pm
mr. man

R. Kelly is a super bad ass musically.

Feb 08 12 - 5:26pm

The Kilborn Alley Blues Band should be on this list. They got ache and grit like a mo fo.

Feb 09 12 - 8:48pm
John Clark

Jesse Dee and Eli Paperboy Reed are also worth checking out.